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Don’t Let These Phillies Fool You

Cole Hamels takes the hill tonight against the Nats.  (Photo: AP)

Cole Hamels takes the hill tonight against the Nats. (Photo: AP)

It’s easy to get excited when the Phillies play like this.  They take a series from the Pirates in Pittsburgh, a series from the Braves at home, and then their No. 5 starter goes out last night and dominates the team directly above them in the standings.  To top it off, all of this comes against the backdrop of the front office laying down the gauntlet, first essentially dubbing this current homestand the Alamo and then holding a closed-door meeting to ensure the players got the message.  Even some of the Philly media are buying in.

I urge you to proceed with caution.

The Phillies have done this before.  In fact, Monday night marked the fourteenth time this season the Phillies have won consecutive games after a loss.  What they haven’t been able to do is get very far beyond that point.  The Phils have won three in a row only three times and five in a row once.  Do the math and you’ll see the problem; they’re 4-9 in games where they’ve won the last two.

That has to change if the Phillies want to jump back into contention.  Don’t believe me?  Then take it from the immortal Lou Brown:

“We won a game yesterday. If we win one today, that’s two in a row. We win one tomorrow, that’s called a winning streak… It has happened before.”

He’s right, but it hasn’t happened much in 2013 for this group.  On a serious note, if the Phillies continue to navigate through this season without reeling off some sort of hot stretch – 10 in a row, 12 of 13, 15 of 20 or something in that ballpark – they’re going to have to win every remaining series to have a shot at making the playoffs.  And let’s face it, that isn’t happening.

To be precise, let’s pretend that the remaining 72 games are segmented into 24 three-game series.  If the Phils took two-of-three in all of them, they’d finish with 92 wins, and given the strength of the NL Central, that is probably around what it will take to make the playoffs.  Again, that’s just not happening… not for any team, much less this one.  They’re going to have to mix a win streak in here and there, and preferably multiple.

The problem is, the Phillies have been about as good at losing consecutive games as they’ve been at winning them.  It took them until early June to win more than three in a row (they won five), and they turned right around and lost the next five.  They’ve also lost two in a row nine times, usually right after they’d won two or three in a row (this has happened EIGHT times).  The result has been a seesaw of optimism and pessimism for Phils fans in which they look either very good and very bad, and often inside the same week.  After a run like this team had from 2007-11, all mediocre seasons are going to be tough, but if this one seems particularly maddening, that seesaw is undoubtedly why.

So why have the first 90 games played out like this?  As David Murphy noted on Sunday, it is most likely because this is a team without a discernable strength.  Their offense ranks 18th in baseball in runs and their starting pitching ranks 16th in ERA.  And we know about the bullpen (29th in ERA, ahead of only the AAAA Astros).

Those marks are not a recipe for a winning streak (or a good team) and have led to a minus-46 run differential.  From 2005-09, the bats were so dominant, all it took was a good stretch from the starting pitching or bullpen, and the Phillies would get hot.  In 2010-11, their loaded rotation was unbeatable if the lineup was hitting.  Those teams were obviously more talented, but they also had a constant; an identity if you will.  In 2013, a lot has to go right for the Phillies to catch fire and that’s probably why it hasn’t happened yet… and in my opinion, why it never will.

I hope I’m wrong.  The Phillies have, after all, been a second half team over the past decade.

They will get their fourteenth attempt to win three in a row tonight against the Nationals.  They’re at home and they have a decisive edge in the pitching matchup, with Cole Hamels facing a rookie making his third major league start.  If they win, maybe it will be the beginning of a run that puts the Phils back into the playoff mix.  But more likely, it will be just the latest impressive performance that builds up hope, followed by two or three bad ones that remind us all what this ball club ultimately is: mediocre.

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